A crow on a withered branch

On a withered branch
A crow is perched
An autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

Kawanabe Kyōsa Crow on a snowy plum branch
Image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Bashō’s poetry

Written in the autumn of 1680. Matsuo Bashō was then living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry to a group of 20 disciples. In this wonderfully simple poem, a crow alights upon a withered branch, and Bashō is moved by the sight to write this haiku.

Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku
Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku

Kare eda ni

A withered branch, kare eda ni. Much is implied, little is said.

Karasu no tomarikeri

A crow, karasu, alighting on the branch, tomarikeri.

Beyond the obvious phonetic assonance of repeating “Ks” is the symbolism of a solitary crow. Normally we associate these noisy and annoysome birds with flocks.  In Japanese mythology the crow symbolizes the will of Heaven.

Gentle reader, I ask: Is Basho the crow, imposing his knowledge and will upon his disciples?

Aki no kure

The final line is aki no kure, autumn evening. This completes the harsh repetition of the K sound, and imitates the cacophonous call of the crow.

Timeline of the poem

Let us visit for a moment with Bashō in Edo. It is still autumn and the leaves are turning red and gold. Winter is about to come.

Perhaps we can imagine Matsuo Bashō sitting on a log in one of the many gardens of Edo surrounded by his student disciples. He is dressed in black, or they are. It is a cool autumn evening and the leaves are gathering at their feet. The students wait in anticipation of what the master is going to say.

Bashō’s poetry was developing its simple and natural style. The point of view in many of Bashō’s haiku is that life (the human condition) is best described as a metaphor. Bashō died at the early age of 50. Perhaps at the age of 36 when this haiku was written he was feeling both the effects of age and the anticipation of death.

Rhyme, rhythm, and assonance

For those who focus more on rhyme, we could translate as follows: “On a withered bough a crow is sitting now.” It is not a choice I like. Better yet, On a cracked and broken branch sits a crow. Some may think of Edgar Allen Poe’s the raven gently tapping… Others may call to mind Yeats line, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…”.

The Golden Hall

The summer rain has spared the Golden Hall

五月雨の 降のこしてや 光堂

Samidare no/ Furinokosite ya/ Hikari-do

Matsuo Basho visited Hiraizumi on June 29, 1689 in the midst of Japan’s rainy season (五月雨の, samidare no, literally the rainy season of the fifth month). There he composed his famous haiku on the Fukiwara clan. “The summer’s grass / Is all that’s left / Of ancient warrior’s dreams.” After which he visited the Golden Hall where the four Fujiwara leaders are entombed.

golden hall hiraizumi

Chusonji Temple in the town of Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture sits atop Mount Kanzan. It is the oldest of the Hiraizumi sites, base of the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan. Its Konjikido (Hikari-do) or “Golden Hall” is a mausoleum containing the remains of all four leaders of the Fujiwara clan, which fell at the end of the 12th century. Kiyohira, the founder, Motohira, Hidehira, and Yasuhira, the last leader, are enshrined.

The first in a line of Fujiwara lords, Kiyohira lost his wife, father and one child to war. The inhumanity he witnessed drove him to create a domain resembling the pure land, a world driven by the higher principals of Buddhism. His vision flourished for a century.

The Golden Hall is encased in a protective glass enclosure. Its ornate structure is decorated with gold leaf and mother-of-pearl. Unbelievably, the Konjiki-dō used to sit outdoors in the open air, but by Basho’s time it was enclosed.

Sora later recounts in his diary that he and Basho could not find anyone to open the doors to the Golden Hall and left without seeing the Golden Hall.

What do my neighbors do?

Autumn deepens, next door, what does my neighbor do?

秋深き / 隣は何を / する人ぞ

aki fukaki / tonari wa nani wo / suru hito zo

Matsuo Basho on the 26th day of the Ninth Month, 1694

Basho was now 51 years old. In the summer of 1694, he left Edo (Tokyo), and after stops in Ueno, his place of birth, and Kyoto, he went to Osaka where he stayed at a country inn. Here he became ill. He was well enough earlier to visit the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine (住吉大社), but by evening decided against attending a poetry gathering at a disciple’s house and sent this poem.

He died a few weeks later on the twelfth day of the tenth month.

Autumn deepens, the man next door, what does he do for a living?

Zen, which aims at the perfection of the person-hood, must acknowledge the impossibility of knowing someone else. Still, one is curious about others and what they do. Gentle reader, I am curious about you. Are you curious about me?

cropped-basho.jpg

Station 24 – Dewagoe

Fleas and lice,
A horse pissing
Close to my pillow.

蚤虱  馬の尿する  枕もと

nomi shirami/ uma no shito suru/ makura moto  

It is now 330 years since Matuso Basho and his companion Saro left on their journey north. They departed on May 16, 1689 and the two now find themselves close to the northernmost end of their journey, having just left Hiraizumi.

From Iwate to Shitomae

Leaving Hiraizumi and the Fujiwara clan behind, Basho and Saro proceeded some 50 miles north to Iwate, then west to Shitomae (尿前) where they stayed for three days.

The nights proved fitful, much like the stay at Iizuka where the fleas and mosquitoes were relentless and sleep impossible. To this torture, add the stench of a urinating horse. Originally, Basho had intended to go further north to Nanbu (南部町) in Yamanashi Prefecture where the Nanbu clan (南部氏 Nanbu-shi) ruled most of northeastern Honshū for over 700 years. Rain and difficulties would change his mind.

The journey towards the west and Shitomae took them towards Dewa Province and the western coast of Japan. The route would be treacherous. On the road to Dewa, Basho and Sora had to cross Kofukazawa River by climbing down a steep gorge through hairpin turns. In summer, when Matsuo Basho and Sora crossed the river they had to negotiate six treacherous bends to climb down and up the rocky gorge.

Basho explains:

Station 24 – Dewagoe

“Turning away from the high road leading to Nambu (Nanbu) Province, I came to the village of Iwate, where I stopped overnight. The next day I looked at the Cape of Oguro and the tiny island of Mizu, both in a river, and arrived by way of Naruko hot springs at the barrier-gate of Shitomae (Shitomae no seki 尿前の関) which blocked the entrance to the province of Dewa. The gate-keepers were extremely suspicious, for very few travelers dared to pass this difficult road under normal circumstances. I was admitted after  a long wait, and darkness overtook me while I was climbing a huge hill. I put up at a gate-keeper’s house which I was very lucky to find in such a lonely place. A storm came upon us and I was held up for three days.

Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse constantly pissing
Close to my pillow.

According to the gate-keeper there was a huge body of mountains obstructing my way to the province of Dewa, and the road was terribly uncertain. So I decided to hire a guide. The gate-keeper was kind enough to find me a young man of tremendous physique, who walked in front of me with a curved sword strapped to his waist and a stick of oak gripped firmly in his hand. I myself followed him, afraid of what might happen on the way. What the gate-keeper had told me turned out to be true. The mountains were so thickly covered with foliage and the air underneath was so hushed that I felt as if I were groping my way in the dead of night. There was not even the cry of a single bird to be heard, and the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging clouds. I pushed my way through thick undergrowth of bamboo, crossing many streams and stumbling over many rocks, till at last I arrived at the village of Mogami after much shedding of cold sweat. My guide congratulated me by saying that I was indeed fortunate to have crossed the mountains in safety, for accidents of some sort had always happened on his past trips. I thanked him sincerely and parted from him. However, fear lingered in my mind some time after that.”

Written on the 17th day of the 5th lunar month at Shitomae, which literally means “before the urine” or vulgarly, “in front of pissing”. Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, 15/11/2012.

The Road North

horse-urinating

The Narrow Road to the North Prologue

matsuo basho

matsuo basho

Station 1 – Prologue

Days and months are eternity’s travelers. As are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the land, finally succumbing to the weight of years, spend each minute of their lives traveling. There are also a great number of the ancients who died on the road (including Chinese Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu and Japanese poets Saigyo and Sogi). For a long time, tempted by  cloud-moving winds, I myself  have felt a strong desire to wander.

It was only toward the end of last autumn that I returned from rambling trip along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my humble house on the River Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner than the spring mist had begun to rise over fields that I wanted to be on the road again, in due time to cross the barrier-gate of Shirakawa . The gods seemingly possessed my soul turning it inside out and from every corner the roadside images seemed to entice me, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.

Even as I was getting ready, mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat and applying moxa to my legs to strengthen them, I was dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima. Finally, I sold my house and temporarily moved to Sampu’s cottage. Upon the threshold of my old home, I wrote a linked verse of eight lines and hung it on a wooden pillar.

The starting piece:
Behind this door
Now buried in deep grass
A different generation will celebrate
The Festival of Dolls.

The Narrow Road to the North

Joined by his traveling companion Kawai Sora (河合曾良), Matsuo Bashō left his home in Edo (Tokyo) in the spring of 1689 for a journey to the north and west coast of Japan. The journey took approximately five months, with Bashō and Sora traveling on foot about ten miles a day.

There were some 40 stations and stops on his journey including: the Tokugawa shrine at Nikkō, Kurobane in the province of Nasu, a Zen temple called Unganji, the Shirakawa barrier, on towards Sukagawa crossing the River Abukuma, through the famous hills of Asaka, through the castle towns of Abumizuri and Shiroishi, arriving at the province of Kasajima, crossing the River Natori and entering the city of Sendai, stopping at the River Noda no Tamagawa and the so-called Rock in the Offing, at the pine woods called Sue no Matsuyama, then to the islands of Matsushima, to Hiraizumi where the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream, then down the west coast of Japan to Sakata, Kisakata, and Etchū.

He and Sora parted ways at Yamanaka, but at Ōgaki he met a few of his other disciples before departing alone to the Grand Shrine of Ise near Kyoto, where the account ends.

After his journey end, Bashō spent five years editing the work before publishing it.

The Work in Full

View the Matsuo Basho Archives

 

The Chrysanthemum – 菊の花

mass of white chrysanthemums

Drinking his morning tea calms the monk – Chrysanthemum

朝茶飲む 僧静かなり 菊の花

Asa cha nomu / sō shizukanari / kiku no hana

mass of white chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemum

Matsuo Bashō (松尾 金作), Japan’s most famous poet of the Edo period, made the chrysanthemum the subject of several haiku. In Japanese the flower is called Kiku-no-hana, literally blossom of the chrysanthemum, or Kiku for short.

As early as the 5th century, it was imported from China into Japan by Buddhist monks, originally as medicine then becoming an object of beauty and admiration. Japanese royalty came to love the flower because they believed it had the power to prolong life. In 1183, the sixteen petal chrysanthemum became the imperial symbol. In November Chrysanthemum Festivals across Japan celebrate the many varieties of the late blooming flower.

As medicine, chrysanthemums are used to treat chest pains and high blood pressure, as well as fevers, colds, headaches, and dizziness.

The delicate petals are brewed into tea, which in our case calms the nervous monk in the morning.

Gazing at morning glories eating breakfast – Basho

hiroshige, 1866 morning glories

I am one
Who eats his breakfast
Gazing at morning glories

朝顔に
我は飯食ふ
男かな

asagao ni / ware wa meshi kû / otoko kana

hiroshige, 1866 morning glories
hiroshige, 1866 detail

Being Matsuo Bashō

Takarai Kikaku (宝井其角, 1661–1707) was one among the most accomplished disciples of Matsuo Bashō. One day, Kikaku composed a haiku, “by the grassy gate, a firefly eats nettles – that is what I am”.

A firefly lights up the night. Basho thought about this and concluded. I am a serious kind, like the asagao (morning glories), I open by day and wither at night. Each to his own. Thus, he composed this intentionally plain haiku.

Both haikus are clever reworkings of the Japanese proverb – “Some worms eat nettles”: Tade kuu mushi, or “every worm to his taste, some eat nettles”. Figuratively, each to his own, or there is no accounting for taste.

蓼食う虫も好き好き
tade kuu mushi sukizuki

Notes on translation

Basho’s play on words, meshi kû, and the proverb’s, kuu mushi. The Japanese character mushi is broadly speaking a bug or insect. My guess is that the proverb refers to nettle eating caterpillars.

In line with Kikaku’s haiku, one could and possibly should translate as,

Watching morning glories, eating rice cakes – that is who I am

朝顔に asago ni, “gazing” at morning glories is a poetic choice, Basho could also have been “sitting”, “watching” or simply being “surrounded by” the flower. It is a Zen thing – to be or do.

Who are you?

Basho retells the Tale of Genji

Tying a rice cake / Held with one hand / Oh, the strands of my hair

粽結ふ 片手にはさむ 額髪

Chimakiyufu katate ni hasamu hitaigami

rice dumpling, chimaki
chimaki

The Tale of Genji

We have all played this game – summarize a complicated story in a few words. Perhaps, one of Matsuo Basho’s disciples issued the challenge for the 11th century masterpiece, The Tale of Genji.

Matsuo Basho’s word picture portrays a woman, no doubt she is lovely, wrapping and knotting () a chimaki ( a sweet and savory rice cake) with a bamboo leaf. With one hand she ties it with a string while with the other hand she brushes a strand of her hair behind her ear.

Thus, Basho explains the Tale of Genji, a work that recounts the love of the Emperor Kiritsubo for a low-ranking concubine, Kiritsubo no Koi (Consort), and the tale of their son, Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji” who is demoted to the status of commoner.

Notes on translation

粽 Chimaki, or Zongzi, a rice dumpling wrapped in palm leaves. In Japan this is traditionally prepared on Children’s Day, thus, for Basho, it describes Kiritsubo Consort’s love for her son Hikaru Genji.
結 yui, tie, to fasten, hold, a knot
片手 katate, one hand
む mu, used for inflection
額髪  hitaigami, the hair on the forehead, bangs

Japanese girl at work

In the morning calm

In the morning calm
Only the sound of the rock
And the voice of the cicada

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声

shizukasa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe

china-hungshan

Journey to the Deep North, Summer of 1689

The clouds were drifting along, and the wind stirred a wanderlust.

Thus it was that Matsuo Bashō decided in the spring of 1689 to journey to Japan’s north. By summer, Matsuo Bashō arrived at the Ryushakuji Buddhist temple on Yamadera (山寺 literally, Mountain Temple), northeast of Yamagata in Japan’s far north.

In his travel diary, Basho explains:

“In Yamagata province, there is a temple called Ryushakuji, founded by the great priest Jikaku. This temple is known for the absolute tranquility of its holy grounds…. The rocks on which the temple is built bear the color of eternity. They are covered with tender moss. The shrine doors are firmly barred and not a sound can be heard. As I move on hands and feet from rock to rock, bowing at each shrine, the purifying power of this sanctuary pervades my being.”

Sibilance

One guesses, I suppose, that Matsuo Basho tries to imitate the cicada’s shrill sound through the technique of sibilance,  shizukasaya / iwa nishimiiru / semi no koe.

I will also propose paraphrased variations inspired by other translators (one example and another one). So, you can decide what works best for you. All of which proves to me, if not to you, that the no haiku is perfect.

In the utter silence
Of the temple grounds,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks

In the quiet
The shrill sound of cicadas
Seeps into the rocks

tree moss

Notes on translation

閑 kan, peace, calm
けさ kesa, this morning
や ya, and

岩 iwa, rock
み mi, only

蝉 semi, cicada
の no, of
声 koe, voice

yamadura mountain temple

Do butterflies dream? Matsuo Basho

You are the butterfly while
I pursue the dreams
of Chuang-tzu

or,

You are the butterfly and
I the dreaming heart
Of Chuang-tzu

君や蝶我や荘子が夢心

kimi ya cho ware ya Sooji ga yumegokoro

butterfly-blue

Seeing a butterfly flutter from flower to flower, the young disciple asks, “Does the butterfly worry? Does he dream of tomorrow?”

Master Basho replies, “You are the butterfly while I pursue the dreams of Chuang-tzu.”

君 you
や ya, cutting word
蝶 kimi, butterfly
君 や 蝶, kimi ya chō, you and the butterfly
莊子 Zhuāngzi, Chung-tzu
夢心 yumeshin, dreaming heart, mind

 

Basho’s haiku is based on an episode from the life of Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu (c.369BC – c.286BC):

“Am I a Man?” he thought,
“dreaming I am a butterfly?
Or a butterfly, dreaming I am a man?

butterfly-drop